The New York Times ‘Truth’ Campaign Drives Digital Subscriptions
The New York Times launched its first brand campaign in a decade and garnered more digital subscribers than any news outlet ever
President Donald Trump has popularized quite a few catch phrases, but perhaps none is more well-known and repeated as “fake news.” To journalists and media outlets, this phrase is akin to doctors hearing anti-vaccination arguments.
The New York Times is one of the main targets of the president’s ire. Living up to its role as the Fourth Estate, The Times performed a check on the power of government by speaking directly to its audience in a new ad campaign.
The New York Times sought the help of the ad agency Droga5 shortly after the 2016 presidential election. Trump and his supporters were spiteful toward the mainstream media prior to his election, and his win didn’t end their vitriol. “The Times wanted to do something dramatic and remind all of us about the importance of truth and the importance of independent, quality journalism and the role it plays in keeping power accountable,” says Tim Gordon, executive creative director at Droga5. “A simple metaphor could be to remind us all that journalism is the lighthouse when we’re lost in a sea of untruths.”
The Times’ goal was three-fold: to stand up for itself as anti-press rhetoric escalated, to assure readers that they have a place to turn for the truth and to attract more subscribers so it could afford to strengthen its coverage.
The New York Times and Droga5 created the “Truth Is Hard,” the newspaper’s first brand campaign in a decade. The initial television ad, which debuted during the 2017 Academy Awards, featured simple black text on a white background. Each sentence began with “The truth is” and flashed through conflicting statements, such as “The truth is we need a full investigation of Russian ties,” and “The truth is leaking classified information is the real scandal.” Throughout the text statements, voices in the background added another layer of conflict. In the end, the voices gave way to a few simple piano notes. The text slowed and morphed to read “The truth is hard,” “The truth is hard to find,” “The truth is hard to know” and “The truth is more important now than ever.” The spot ended with the iconic New York Times nameplate.
Gordon says the black and white used in the ad was inspired by the paper. The layering and conflict of ideas in the text and voices mimicked the clutter of news. “There’s a bombardment of information and so many things grasping for your attention,” Gordon says. “We wanted to provide a very clear and impactful message.”
Because the ad was airing during the Academy Awards, two phrases were added: “The truth is celebrities should keep their mouths shut,” and “The truth is everyone has the right to speak their mind.” The ad was aired during the awards ceremony to reach the largest audience possible. Plus, it was likely that some award winners and presenters would make political comments during the show, providing an easy way for The Times to insert itself into the conversation.
The television spot ran nationally for a week after the awards, and digital ads continued for a month. The campaign also included social, print and out-of-home ads, all featuring the simple black-on-white design.
“The initial visual approach reinforced the starkness of their intended message: that the truth is under fire, and it is as clear as black and white,” says Drew Neisser, founder and CEO of social media and marketing consultancy Renegade. “This visual approach also made it cut through the noise of the typical full-color approach used by 99.9% of advertisers.”
In the months following, Droga5 and The Times also launched a wave of films directed by Darren Aronofsky (director of “Black Swan” and “Requiem for a Dream”) that give viewers a look behind some of the images photojournalists have captured for the paper. The videos are a series of stills accompanied by commentary from the photographers.
The short films — about one minute each — were boosted whenever the subjects were trending in the news cycle. The “Truth Is Hard” ads were also served when readers hit a paywall on The Times’ website.
In 24 hours, the “Truth is Hard” ad won more subscribers for The Times than the paper had gained in the preceding six weeks. The first quarter of 2017, when the ads debuted, was The Times’ best quarter ever for subscription growth. In the second quarter of the year, The Times passed 2 million digital-only subscribers, a first for any news organization. The “Truth Is Hard” campaign earned 5.12 billion impressions and $16.8 million in media value. It also won accolades from the Cannes Lions, the Drum Digital Trading Awards, the One Show, D&AD Pencils and the Webby Awards.
“I think the real testament has been the longevity of it,” Gordon says. The campaign has been replicated in popular culture, including on T-shirts from designer Sacai (worn by musician Frank Ocean) and spoofs by “The Late Show.” “The original posters were used as protest signs. People were hanging them on their wall. It’s a message you can return to.”
At a time when elected officials challenge the press, Neisser says the campaign cemented The Times as a leader in the battle for truth. “It hits on a nerve that is both topical and timeless, that a free press is fundamental to the health of our democracy, whether or not a particular leader likes what is being reported,” he says.
Neisser interviewed The Times’ COO Meredith Kopit Levien for Ad Age about how her team has positioned The Times as a consumer brand. Neisser says people outside of the paper had strong feelings about The Times — but the staff didn’t think of itself as a brand. The “Truth Is Hard” campaign acts as a rallying cry for the entire organization to refocus on delivering the truth.
“These actions remind the public that The New York Times is not just a news organization, but one that is aligned with the very foundations of a free society,” Neisser says. “It’s rare that an ad campaign operates on such a heady level.”
The campaign continues to have new iterations, including a January 2018 version with the tagline, “The truth has a voice.” The spot debuted during the 2018 Golden Globes and referred to the stories of sexual harassment that had recently come to light.
“Unfortunately, [the campaign] almost becomes more relevant day by day,” Gordon says.
About the Author | Sarah Steimer
Sarah Steimer is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.